The top 10 diplomatic stories of 2019

Ranked from least to greatest are the most high-profile diplomatic stories of the year.

2019:  Diplomatic top 10 (photo credit: REUTERS/GPO)
2019: Diplomatic top 10
(photo credit: REUTERS/GPO)
Israel’s history is replete with years memorable for particular events: 1948, the War of Independence; 1956, Operation Kadesh; 1967, the Six Day War; 1973, the Yom Kippur War; 1977, Menachem Begin’s election victory; 1993, the Oslo Accords; 1995, the Rabin assassination; 2000, the start of the Second Intifada; 2005, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip; 2014, Operation Protective Edge.
The current year coming to a close, 2019, might also be one of those years that stand out – not because of any military campaign or dramatic diplomatic breakthrough. Rather, because it was the year in which Israel went to the polls twice, and – because of an inability to form a government – had to call an election for an unprecedented third time.
2019 – The year of the elections
As such, political news, as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal issues – intricately interwoven with the political news – dominated the headlines. The marquee diplomatic issues – the Iranian nuclear dossier, relations with countries around the world, the Palestinian issue, were relegated to a back burner.
If in 2018, there was a steady parade of world leaders beating a path to the prime minister’s door, in 2019 that number tapered off – simply because world leaders wanted to wait until after the elections and a new government was formed to visit.
But unlike “after the holidays” – that ubiquitous phrase here in September during the High Holiday period, when it is clear when that moment arrives – “after a coalition is formed” is a date that is open-ended.
And the lack of high-profile diplomatic visitors over the last few months is a testament to the fact that 2019 was not a red-letter diplomatic year. That being said, the year was marked by some key diplomatic events that will leave their imprint.
Here is a look at Israel’s top 10 diplomatic stories of 2019, in reverse order.

10. Diplomatic offices open in Jerusalem

There was hope, following the American move of its embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, that in 2019 a number of other countries would do the same. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely spoke after the US decision of some 10 other countries that were mulling the move.
It didn’t happen. Only one country followed suit – Guatemala – with both Honduras and Brazil promising to do so in the near future. In the meantime, however, a handful of countries have taken a half-step toward that move, deciding to open economic and trade offices in the capital.
Brazil took this step earlier this month, following a similar move by Hungary, the Czech Republic and Honduras.
Australia has opened a trade and defense office in the capital, while Paraguay declared its desire to open a diplomatic office there as well.
These offices indicate a desire by the countries who made the move to open an embassy, though there is something – the EU in the case of the Czech Republic, trade with the Arab world, in the case of Brazil – keeping them back.
9. Chad establishes diplomatic relations with Israel
In January, in the midst of Netanyahu’s first election campaign, the premier flew to Chad, where it was formally announced that the two countries would reestablish diplomatic ties.
While this must be seen within the context of Netanyahu’s search for diplomatic headlines to help in his campaign, the significance of the move goes well beyond the prime minister’s narrow political needs.
It is clear what Chad – an impoverished, water-starved country engaged in a fight with Boko Haram in the Lake Chad area – wants from Israel: intelligence, security expertise, technological assistance for water management and agriculture, and improved ties with America.
But what does Israel gain? Primarily, it sends an important message that it is possible to decouple relations with Muslim states from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Chad, a Muslim-majority state strategically bordering Libya and Sudan, can go public about its ties with Israel, perhaps others can as well.
8. Relations with Poland plummet
If 2019 saw the establishment of ties with Chad, it also witnessed the further deterioration of ties with Poland, largely as a result of non-diplomatic language used by Israel’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz.
Emotions still raw over a Polish attempt to make it a crime to attribute culpability to the Poles for the Holocaust, Netanyahu triggered a crisis with Warsaw when he was misquoted in the Polish capital as saying “the Poles” collaborated with the Nazis, rather than “Poles” collaborated with the Nazis.
Katz, who had just been appointed foreign minister and was at his job for all of 12 hours, compounded the situation by saying in interviews that the Poles “imbibe antisemitism with their mother’s milk.”
His comment, undiplomatic at any time, was even more undiplomatic coming just days before the Polish prime minister was scheduled to take part in a first-of-its- kind summit in Jerusalem of the Visegrad countries – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The Poles canceled, and relations nosedived. Warsaw is waiting for an apology form Katz, something that won’t happen as long as there is an election campaign in Israel – a four-month campaign that has now extended for over a year.

7. Ties with Jordan ebb
When Israel and Jordan signed a peace agreement in 1994 that has since greatly benefited both sides, there was a clause allowing Israel to lease land at Naharayim and Tzofar for 25 years, an agreement that would automatically renew unless one side opted out.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II – under pressure from the Jordanian parliament and much of the Jordanian street – opted out, making clear to Israel what many here try not so see: The Jordanian public doesn’t like us much.
Abdullah’s decision not to renew the agreement – and his public prayer at the site when the lease ran out, as if holy land was somehow liberated from the hands of the infidels – was a very public expression of the deterioration in ties with Jordan.
If that wasn’t enough, Abdullah himself said in New York that relations with Israel were at their lowest point ever. To top it all off, and to give an indication of the public state of ties, the Jordanian army conducted an exercise simulating an invasion not from Iraq in the east or Syria in the north, but rather from Israel in the west.

6. Relations with Russia vacillate
In April, a week before the elections, Benjamin Netanyahu went to Russia for the second time in two months, and this time came back with the belongings of Sgt. Zachary Baumel, whose remains were returned to Israel from Syria with the help of the Russians some 37 years after he went missing.
This gesture from Russian President Vladimir Putin – just a week before the elections – showcased the relationship that exists between Netanyahu and Putin. The Russian president made it clear he likes and works well with Netanyahu, and this move right before the voting was obviously timed to help the prime minister.
That relationship proved important throughout the year as Israel reportedly continued to hit Iranian assets inside Syria, even though the Russians are there and could stop it if they desired. They didn’t, and the year has passed for the most part with a quiet understanding between Russia and Israel: Israel doesn’t harm Russian interests in Syria, which is that the regime of Bashar Assad survives; and Russia does not stop Israel from pursuing its interests there: keeping the Iranians from entrenching themselves militarily in the country.
But not all was well in 2019 in the Moscow-Jerusalem relationship, as evidence by the disproportionate jail time given to Naama Issachar – arrested in a Moscow airport for having nine grams of marijuana in her bag on the way from India to Israel.

5. Bahrain stands in for the ‘Deal of the Century’
The long-awaited Trump framework for peace in the Middle East, derisively labeled the “Deal of the Century” by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, was all set to be rolled out in 2019.
Then the Knesset elections intervened – the first ones, the second ones, and, now, the third ones -- so Washington’s plans were scuttled and the plan tarries. The long delay has led many to doubt if the plan will indeed see the light of day before the US presidential elections in November 2020.
Instead, the Administration held a high-profile parley in Bahrain in June where – in the absence of either Israeli or Palestinian officials, but with the participation of Israeli businessmen and journalists – they rolled out an economic plan. Little has been heard of that plan since.
4. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are banned
In August, two anti-Israeli members of Congress, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, made clear their intention of visiting “Palestine.” The two were not interested in coming to learn about the conflict they had already made up their minds about, but rather to shine a negative light on the Jewish state.
Nevertheless, Israel – as ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer made clear – would have let them in. Not with a lot of enthusiasm, but with a feeling that Israel could survive the few days of bad PR the trip would generate.
Instead, Trump – interested in painting the two hard-left congresswoman as the face of the Democratic party – tweeted that it would be a mistake for Israel to let them in. As a result, Israel barred their entrance.
Democrats in both the House and Senate were aghast, and this incident showed the way in which Israel – for a number of years one of the only issues in Washington that both Democrats and Republicans could agree on – had become a divisive political issue.
Inside the Democratic Party, presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren playing to the Left-oriented progressives of the party spoke openly about withholding military aid to Israel. What was once whispered only in the back rooms at Democratic national conventions, was now being openly expressed by significant political candidates.

3. Settlements are not illegal
For years it was an axiom: settlements are illegal. European diplomats would say it as if it was Torah from Sinai. Newspapers would always use illegal as the modifying adjective before the word “settlements.” And nobody would take this orthodoxy to task.
Until Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stepped in back of a lectern at the State Department in November and declared that the United States does not believe that the settlements are illegal per se.
Why does this merit being one of the top three diplomatic events of the year for Israel, especially since this declaration changes nothing on the ground? Because it alters the parameters of the conversation. Pompeo’s declaration pokes holes into what has long been viewed as a given.
2. US recognizes Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights
Israel captured the strategic Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, and extended Israeli law there in 1981. No country in the world recognized Israeli sovereignty there until this year, when US President Donald Trump – with an eye on helping Netanyahu in the elections – made an announcement to that effect in the White House just two weeks before the April voting.
That declaration had importance far beyond the elections, however, and is important because the Syria that the world knew before the civil war there in 2011 is never coming back. That unified state is a relic of the past. And whatever ends up being the final dispensation of Syria when the Civil War finally burns out, it is clear that there will be various forces controlling areas strategic to them. Syrian President Bashar Assad will control a part, the Turks will control a chunk, and it is vitally important for Israel to retain control over the Golan.
Up until 1967, the Golan was what Gaza is today – an area from which fire was directed at civilian communities. That all stopped when Israel took the region as a result of the Six Day War. Trump made clear that in the eyes of the Americans – no bit player on the world scene – Israel can keep it forever. That has significance.

1. Iran continues to create havoc
Iran continued to preoccupy Israel’s political and military leaders in 2019, as well as its strategic planners. Jerusalem continued to worry about Tehran’s nuclear objectives, its conventional abilities and efforts it was making to project power in the region.
This is a year that saw Israel continue to battle against Iranian entrenchment in Syria and – reportedly – further afield as well.
But 2019 was definitely not a banner year for Iran.
As American sanctions continue to squeeze, demonstrations against the regime of the Ayatollahs broke out inside Iran and were quelled violently, and that country’s ability to export its mischief abroad was scaled down, though by no means halted.
The Iranians were behind high-profile attacks this year on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and a Saudi oil facility, but at the same time they did not have the funds to prop up Hezbollah as they had in the past.
Iran did, however, have the ability to stir up trouble in Gaza, reportedly the force behind Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket attacks on Israeli cities in November.
The Iranians have a clear strategy: create as much havoc as they can in the region, both to deflect from their own problems, and create opportunities for them to move in. And in this sense, 2019 was no different than the last number of years that have come before.